Croatia coach Niko Kovac lavished praise on striker Mario Mandzukic who returned from suspension to score two goals in the 4-0 win over Cameroon in World Cup Group A on Wednesday.
The powerfully-built Mandzukic, who missed the opening 3-1 defeat by Brazil after being sent off in Croatia’s final qualifying match, dominated the Cameroonian defence and scored twice in the second half.
“Any coach would be happy to have such a player in his team. He is not just a goal-getter – his attitude picks the team up and affects the opposing side,” Kovac told a news conference.
“The fact he scored twice shows how important he is for this team and what kind of service the team can expect from him,” he said.
Indeed, Kovac suggested the Brazil result could have been different had the 28-year-old striker played.
“What is for sure is that with a player such as Mario this (result) would have looked different,” he said.
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Mandzukic said his suspension for the first game meant he had had time to do more training.
“There is still room for progress and I’m very satisfied with this victory,” the striker said.
Croatia’s thumping win meant they will qualify for the second round if they beat Mexico next Monday. That could be tough since the Mexicans looked impressive when holding hosts Brazil to a 0-0 draw on Tuesday.
“We know what awaits us from the Mexican match. This is the final for us,” said Kovac. “(They) are a very good, even excellent team, very aggressive, full of energy … they were capable of threatening Brazil.”
Cameroon had Alex Song sent off and played poorly, a fact Kovac conceded.
“Well, certainly Cameroon was not on top but we have to ask ourselves why they played in that way. I think it was down partly to my team. They showed they wanted to win and they deserved it,” he said.
“I don’t want to belittle what our team did, they were excellent. Our team has the potential to be at par with the best.”